Although the Embry-Riddle women’s basketball team won’t host the Cal-Pac Conference Tournament, the Eagles moved closer to possibly clinching the No. 1 seed after upsetting three-time defending league champion UC-Merced, 64-60, for sole possession of first place in the standings.
With three Cal-Pac contests remaining, all on the road, the Eagles improved to 10-1 in conference Saturday night at the ERAU Activity Center in Prescott. The Bobcats, who handed Embry-Riddle its last loss, 66-57, Jan. 4 in Merced, fell to 8-2.
“In practice every day coach was telling us, ‘This is a big one, we need to get this one,’ ” said ERAU guard Danae Ruiz, one of eight sophomores, along with a freshman, on the Eagles’ nine-player roster. “All of us had heart today, and we all wanted to get this. We had nothing to lose.”
Three Eagles scored in double figures, led by Jazlyn Malentino’s 17 points, five rebounds and a steal. She converted 7 of 8 from the free-throw line, including 2 for 2 with 15 seconds remaining that helped seal the win. Malentino played valiantly with four fouls in the final 3 minutes.
“All I could think about was, ‘It’s the team,’” Malentino said regarding her late foul trouble. “That’s all I’m here for is the team. My major thought process was, ‘staying disciplined, move your feet.’ We’re happy [with this win], and we’re staying hungry.”
Embry-Riddle coach Becky Burke didn’t mince words about the role Malentino plays.
“Jaz is a very unique player in this league, from a standpoint of just her athleticism,” Burke said. “I don’t think there’s a one-on-one match-up in our conference that Jaz doesn’t win more times than she loses. These last few games she’s building more and more confidence.”
Jenna Knudson added 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal for the hosts. Katana Martina tallied 10 points and seven rebounds. Ruiz also came up huge, posting eight points, nine boards, four assists, a block and a steal.
Embry-Riddle’s defense held the Bobcats to 32 percent shooting from the floor (19 of 60), although UC-Merced’s Aubrey Hayes paced all scorers with 20 points (6 of 12 3-pointers) and Mia Shannon registered a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. Deja Jackson (12 points, eight boards) and Mia Belvin (11 points) also contributed.
“The focus remains [a league title]. We know what the goal is going in, and small upsets like this don’t bother us,” Shannon said. “We know what the end goal is.”
Perhaps the difference in the game came on the glass, as the Eagles out-rebounded the Bobcats, 46-36.
“Rebounds were definitely key,” UC-Merced coach Sarah Hopkins-Chery said. “Embry-Riddle does a good job of crashing the boards. They’ve got a couple girls that are just ‘beast mode’ for the rebounds, and that’s what they do. It’s something we spoke of before the game and at halftime.”
This was the biggest win to date in the short two-year history of ERAU’s program, which missed qualifying for the Cal-Pac Tournament by one game in 2016-17 (finished 14-12 overall, 8-6 Cal-Pac).
Embry-Riddle, which is riding a conference-best nine-game winning streak since Jan. 6, notched its 20th victory of the 2017-18 season (20-3 overall record). In the process, the Eagles ended a stretch of five straight wins for UC-Merced (16-8).
The Cal-Pac Tournament will be played Feb. 25 and 27 at UC-Maritime in Vallejo, California. The Top 4 squads in the eight-team conference standings at the end of the regular season qualify for the tourney. In the semifinals on the 25th, the No. 1 and 4 seeds and the No. 2 and 3 seeds face off, with the winners of each game qualifying for the league championship on the 27th.
Whichever squad captures the Cal-Pac Tournament title automatically qualifies for the 32-team NAIA Division II National Championship tourney played March 7-13 at Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
Embry-Riddle travels to Benedictine-Mesa (14-10, 7-4 Cal-Pac) for its next Cal-Pac game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10. The Eagles end the regular season Feb. 15 at Antelope Valley (15-6, 7-2 Cal-Pac) and Feb. 17 at La Sierra (9-14, 4-5 Cal-Pac) in California.
“We’ve got three very tough games left,” Burke said, “and, for me, anything can happen.”
UC Merced will play host to La Sierra for its next conference contest on Thursday, Feb. 8.